By Maureen Mullen
BOSTON -- He's got a name that is right out of baseball's central casting. He wears his pants high -- to show off his red socks -- and baggy, old-school style. His speech drips with a Texas drawl and is laced with "ma'ams," "sirs,' and "shoots." Never a highly heralded prospect, he was buried in the depth charts. Listed at 5-feet-10 and 185 pounds, he doesn't stand out in a crowd or a clubhouse. He likes being the underdog. And in Boston it doesn't hurt that he could pass for Matt Damon's kid brother.
It's easy to root for Brock Wyatt Holt. Especially given what he's been doing on the field recently.
"I love watching him. You just root for guys like that," said catcher David Ross, a veteran of 13 big league seasons. "He's a great player. I love having him on our team."
Fort Worth native Holt, a 2009 pick by the Pirates out of Rice University, was sent to the Red Sox as part of the trade in December 2012 with closer Joel Hanrahan as the center piece. But while Hanrahan is gone, having earned just four saves for the Sox, Holt has become the toast of Boston.
In 39 games entering Friday, he has a .327/.366/.447 line, five stolen bases, and 22 runs scored on the year. In parts of two big league seasons prior to this, with the Pirates and Sox, he appeared in a total of 50 games, batting .250/.302/.295. Last season, in 26 games for the Sox he hit just .203/.275/.237.
This spring, with the Red Sox looking to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, manager John Farrell mentioned possible replacements -- Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, even Grady Sizemore, who had been out of baseball for more than two years because of injuries (and was recently DFA'd by the club). Holt's name didn't come up.
But, with the underperforming World Series champions struggling to find wins, the Sox had to be creative. On April 21, he hit lead-off for the first time with the Sox, becoming the team's fifth lead-off batter of the season. He went 2-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI in a loss. Four days later, he was sent back to Triple-A.
He was most recently called up on May 17. In his first five games, he didn't hit above seventh in the Sox lineup. But, on May 23, he was inserted back into the lead-off spot. He has not been out of the lineup or out of the top spot since.
Since then he is batting .325/.354/.450. Going 39-for-120, he leads the major leagues in hits in that span. He has reached safely in 25 of 28 lead-off starts and overall is batting .331 with a .356 OBP as the Sox lead-off hitter.
But his accomplishments at the plate practically pale when compared to what he's done in the field.
Holt, who turned 26 on June 11, was drafted as a second baseman and played shortstop in the minors. But he's made 23 starts at third this season for the Sox -- and, for the first time in his life, he's played first base (six starts), left field (six), right (three), and center (one). Ironically, he has yet to play second or short.
"I'm not at all surprised by the success he's having," said one scout who has watched of Holt's professional career. "He'll give you a good at-bat. He can play anywhere. He's tough. He's smart. He's not flashy, he's just a good baseball player."
His success at the plate has forced Farrell to find ways to keep him in the lineup.
"It's his ability to adapt to a new position as quick as he has, that's the thing that's been most surprising," Farrell said. "But knowing who he is as a competitor and an athlete and his baseball intelligence, that's not surprising."
Holt still hasn't had time to get his own first base or outfield gloves. He's been borrowing from teammate Alex Hassan, who has let Holt keep the outfield glove.
"Every time he's at a new position for the first time we kind of hold our breath a little bit," said general manager Ben Cherington. "He enjoys the challenge of moving around and proving that he can do it. He's athletic, he's got instincts. He can run. He can throw. He feels comfortable in both corner spots so we decided to give [center fielder] Jackie [Bradley, Jr.] a blow and see what happens.
"We always liked him as a hitter. We didn't know how versatile he would be. We weren't thinking about him as an outfielder necessarily. But he's always been a hitter, a solid blue collar player who always played hard."
"It's different," Holt said of playing so many positions. "It's not something I expected coming into the year. But it's a new challenge, and I'm enjoying it. Moving around is fun. It's been fun for me, just having the opportunity to move around and help out when I can."
On Tuesday, he nearly single-handedly engineered the 2-1 win over the Twins, going 2-for-4 with a double and a stolen base, scoring the Sox' only two runs of the game. But it was his catch to end the top of the third that will stay on highlight reels for quite a while.
"The biggest thing that impresses me is not the catch," Lester said, "but the wherewithal for a guy who hasn't played outfield a lot, especially center field, to be backing up and move in that direction when the ball is hit. That's a smart baseball player."
Holt, though, is just taking his success in stride.
"I think it's just before the year just kind of telling myself to forget about last year and just go out and have fun," he said. "Just play the game like I'm capable of doing, don't put too much pressure on myself, don't worry about anything, just go out and play."
He's enjoyed the challenge of taking on all the new positions and the responsibility of leading off. But while Farrell was looking for a lead-off hitter in the spring, didn't he want to raise his hand?
"Well, it's not my decision to make," he said. "They kind of had people in mind at the beginning of the year, but lead off is something that I've done pretty much my whole career, but I'm not just going to go into the office and say 'hey, guys, look at me.' but it's worked out so far, and hopefully we can just keep going with it."
And it's been enjoyable for him watching others' reactions to his newfound success.
"I've had to prove myself at every level, whether it be high school, college, junior college or at Rice, and even in the minor leagues. I've never been one of the top prospects. I wasn't a high draft pick. So I like being the underdog. I like proving people wrong, so it's been fun for me. But I enjoy going out and playing baseball and that's what I'm trying to do."
While the Sox are still struggling to get to .500, since Holt has been in the lead-off spot, they are 14-13.
"I think he's been the whole reason for us being a little bit more consistent," said Ross. "Because he's at the top of our lineup every day, and no matter where we put him he plays a good position, he plays solid defense. He's a phenomenal player."
"The best way to wrap it up," said Farrell. "He's a good baseball player."
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Maureen Mullen has covered the Red Sox and Major League Baseball since 2002. Her work can also be read on Boston.com and in the Boston Globe, USA TODAY and several other traditional and new media outlets. She is the author of Diary of a Red Sox Season, 2007 with the legendary Johnny Pesky, and Yogi Was Up with a Guy on Third, conversations with 53 of the 64 living Hall of Famers.